Building Bikes, Fostering Change

How can craft and technology influence, and cater to, evolving social needs, user demands, and civic infrastructure? This summer, students in Nick Riddle's Industrial Design course titled "Bike Building I: The Frame" set out to answer the question.

Focusing on traditional principles and techniques of bicycle frame building, Riddle led students through the process of researching, designing, crafting, and manufacturing a custom bike. According to each student's individual desire, some of the final bikes were for mountain riding, others were for road riding, and others were purely for leisure. All were conceived, designed, and assembled in just six weeks.

Riddle's underlying intent was to use the bicycle as a starting point and vehicle (no pun intended!) to examine social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues in the ever-evolving context of San Francisco. Bikes are becoming a more and more popular means of transportation, and the city is paying attention to bicyclists' needs both culturally and via its evolving infrastructure.

"Until now," says Riddle, "the bike industry has largely relied upon recreational users and racers as the main drivers for innovation. But as cities like San Francisco begin to include the bicycle as part of their overall transportation strategy, I think there are opportunities for CCA to play a key role in the resulting technological and cultural shifts."

The students worked predominantly in the welding studio, which for some was a new experience and thus an extra challenge, especially given the short timeframe. Guest instructors Paul Sadoff (of Rock Lobster Bikes in Santa Cruz) and Curtis Inglis (a professional framebuilder in Napa, who builds under Inglis Bikes and Retrotec) were instrumental in helping the students understand the requirements of good-quality welds.

CCA faculty member Corey Jones participated in the class and built a bike for a friend. "Cutting the first piece of tubing marked a new milestone, 'the point of no return.' It was that bit of commitment that once you got past really opened the floodgates of the building process. Until that first tube was cut, your bike could still be anything. It could still be perfect. I found many little ways to get over that, but still ended up with a bike I am proud of. Although I look back fondly to my initial idea of a perfect bike!"

Industrial Design student Duff Ryan created a beautiful frame (which is still evolving, due to its novel rear wheel attachment). He brought many skills to the group, including sand bending, a technique for bending thin-walled steel tubing that avoids kinks, wrinkles, and buckling.

The bent rear tubes of Tim Bishop's bike give it a smoother ride; the technique is resurrected from British frame building in the 1960s. Says Bishop: "My interest in the course derived from 1) my fondness for bicycles, and 2) having just completed CCA's MBA in Design Strategy program, my inescapable desire to make something with my hands. Coming into the course, there were two bikes I was intimately familiar with: my Surly Steamroller, which has a quick and responsive track geometry, and PUBLIC's new lines of upright and comfy city bikes. The two geometric values that most contribute to how a bike feels are the wheelbase (the distance between the two wheel centers) and the trail (derived from the steering angle and fork offset). My aim was to build something like a cyclo-cross bike, with a wheelbase and trail between that of the other two bikes. I'm happy to report that I love the way the bike rides and am still a little shocked that I built the thing."

Students: Do you have good video documenting CCA's bike culture? If yes, enter to win $500 in the R.A.W. video contest. The deadline is October 8.